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Understanding Glory

In the beginning of Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17, he prays that his Father would glorify him. In this petition, though, Jesus was not asking for anything new, for the glory he asks for is the same glory that he shared with the Father before all worlds. As we take up this first of the three petitions of John 17, it’s worth thinking through in this reflection what Jesus means when he talks about glory and being glorified so that we have a better appreciation for how the rest of the petitions flow from the glory of Jesus.

To begin, the idea of glory and bringing glory to someone is controlled by the Old Testament. There, God’s glory is his weightiness, his honor, and also the brilliant light that attended his appearance to Old Testament saints. To be glorified, then, has the idea of being recognized as one who is substantial, worthy of honor. This starting point for glory immediately contrasts it with light, insubstantial things. In the imagery of the Old Testament, this kind of comparison is sometimes made between chaff, the husks of wheat kernels that are separated during the threshing process, and something else that is weightier or more firmly rooted. For example, Psalm 1 describes the blessed man, i.e. the one who abides in God’s Word as, “a tree, planted by streams of water” (Ps 1:3 ESV), whereas the wicked are described as “chaff that the wind drives away” (Ps 1:4 ESV). The point is that a tree firmly rooted has substance, rootedness, but chaff is insubstantial.

To switch the imagery, glory is like the difference between a cheap plastic pen and a nice one, e.g. a Mont Blanc. When you pick up a cheap plastic pen, it has no substance to it; you’re not surprised when you have to scribble really hard on a piece of scrap paper to get it going. A cheap plastic pen is not glorious. But when you pick up a nice, glorious (if I may) pen, you feel that it has weight and substance to it because it is real and durable. This is something of the idea of “glor(if)y.”

With that imagery in mind, the next aspect to consider is how glory is manifested. Or to say it another way, if the glory of a Mont Blanc pen is experienced in picking it up and writing with it, how is the glory of God experienced? One scholar says that “Glory manifests itself in the operation of God's power and salvation in redemptive history” (NIDNTTE, δόξα). For example, God’s glory, his weightiness and honor, was experienced by Israel at the Red Sea. This is how Moses described it:

Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. … At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. … You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.  “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Exod 15:6, 8, 10-11 ESV)

Now that is glorious! But for as glorious as God’s triumph at the Red Sea was, it was not the full expression of his glory. Again, one scholar has said, “God's glory was expected to be fully manifested in the last days, bringing salvation to Israel but also converting the nations” (NIDNTTE, δόξα).

And this last-days, or eschatological, perspective adds an important element to understanding glory, for as our Lord prays in John 17 that the Father would glorify him, he is praying with the painful and shameful death of the cross looming large in his mind. The crucifixion is the culmination of the manifestation of God’s glory through the unexpected humbling that began with the birth of our Lord, the incarnation of the eternally begotten Son of God. This element teaches us that glory is not all about fine things and forceful power. Glory also consists in self-sacrifice and tremendous displays of self-control, things that we will see in and through Jesus in the final chapters of John’s gospel.

So, then, as we wrap up the gospel of John, we must keep in mind that the events of the betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death of Jesus are all part of how we understand glorify as the Father glorifies the Son through these things.

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